Churchill and Hiroshima

Jacques Hymans

In Quebec in 1943, the US and the UK agreed that any use of nuclear weapons would require both countries’ prior approval. The British government gave its formal assent to the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the Combined Policy Committee meeting in Washington on 4 July 1945. Deliberations over the decision were remarkably perfunctory. On 30 April, Field Marshal Henry Maitland Wilson had written from Washington that the US was eager to know British views. The ensuing discussions focused only on the phrasing of London’s assent.

You could argue that British agreement was a formality, as the Americans were going to proceed regardless, but it needn’t have been. After the Quebec Conference, Sir John Anderson – who was in charge of nuclear co-operation with the US – had argued for a thorough consideration of the best way to handle the linked issues of the bomb’s potential wartime use and its long-term international control. In October 1943, Anderson discussed the matter deeply with Niels Bohr, who had just escaped to Britain from the continent. Their conversations resulted in Bohr’s proposal to forestall a nuclear arms race by bringing the Soviets fully into the picture as soon as possible.

Churchill, however, refused to contemplate such a policy. In March and April 1944, he rebuffed Anderson’s entreaties to launch a study into how to handle the diplomatic ramifications of the new weapon. He agreed to meet Bohr and his own scientific adviser, Lord Cherwell, on 16 May. But at the meeting he was dismissive, even rude. ‘It was terrible,’ Bohr later remarked. ‘He treated us like two schoolboys.’ A later meeting between Bohr and President Roosevelt was less unpleasant, but no more productive.

At Hyde Park, New York in September 1944, Churchill and Roosevelt decided that the world should not be informed of the new invention before its first use, which they suggested might be against Japan. They also agreed to indefinite bilateral collaboration on both military and commercial applications of nuclear energy. ‘Enquiries should be made regarding the activities of Professor Bohr,’ they added, ‘and steps taken to ensure that he is responsible for no leakage of information, particularly to the Russians.’ The Cold War was already beginning to take shape.


  • 6 August 2015 at 5:24pm
    JudyS says:
    "Their conversations resulted in Bohr’s proposal to forestall a nuclear arms race by bringing the Soviets fully into the picture as soon as possible."

    I never knew this about Bohr. Fascinating post. I would like to understand the details of that conversation.

    Having read "Ivan's War", I have an admiration for the strength of the individual Soviet soldier and how truly frightening it was to contemplate an ongoing ground war (post WW2) with people so capable of withstanding such prolonged brutalization (by both the enemy and own government). It made me appreciate the potential initial reasons for the cold war.

  • 11 August 2015 at 7:34pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Churchill shouldn’t have been so boorish with Bohr, but in extenuation he was preoccupied with the war actually being fought and incurring real losses, while diplomatic maneuvers to engage the Russians in nuclear weapons development must have seemed like wasting effort on a project the time-line and outcome of which remained unknown at the time. He certainly respected the Red Army for taking a terrific beating as it continued to grind down the Germans, but “better them than us” was a sensible attitude for any statesman concerned with the welfare of his own nation’s citizens – nobody was acting according the altruistic rules of Peter Singer. And, why should he trust Stalin in such a delicate matter? Stalin had never given anyone, including his inner circle, reasons to trust him. He also knew that the Americans were carrying the burden of the war in the Pacific, with large losses of men and equipment, and that this was likely to continue for quite a while when and if Hitler was defeated. Again, why would he assume a serious consultative role for himself, knowing full well that the US leaders would decide the issue of atomic weapons use on the merits of their own estimates (which were from bad to horrendous for the proposed invasions of the Japanese mainland) and discussions? Churchill had made many bad military and political decisions throughout his long, stormy career in public life (he knew this, as did his critics) – he didn’t have to seek out a new issue on which he might bumble or be perceived as irrelevant.

  • 12 August 2015 at 9:15am
    ohneeigenschaften says:
    Churchill had publicly pledged to provide all support including sharing all weapons research with the Soviet Union after the latter entered the war coalition against Nazi Germany: “any man or state who fights against Nazism will have our aid”.

    Thus British atomic spy Alan Nunn May claimed in his defence that he was only following Churchill's public commitment in passing atomic secrets to his Soviet handlers. The same argument was used by Julius Rosenberg to talk his brother-in-law David Greenglass into passing secrets from Los Alamos.

    Of course the Western Allies never had any intention of sharing atomic secrets with Stalin. But then, Stalin also had no intention of honouring many of his commitments, such as returning American B-29 bombers that had made emergency landings on Soviet territory (which were subsequently reverse engineered into the Tupulov Tu-4, their only airplane for many years capable of carrying an atomic bomb).

  • 12 August 2015 at 2:36pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    To the Man without Qualities’ remarks I can only add a slight linguistic qualification. The USSR did not exactly “join” the fight against Nazism – it had that role thrust upon it by Hitler’s invasion. Up until that night In June 1941 Stalin had been one of Hitler’s principal economic (and even “diplomatic”) enablers in the Nazi war effort (his quid pro quo being Eastern Poland and the Baltic states). And, during the USSR’s darkest days at the outset of the war, Stalin was still open to the idea of signing a truce with Hitler (along the lines of the Brest-Litovsk treaty of WWI, when the Bolsheviks sacrificed territory for time and conservation of their regime), regardless of what effect this would have on the UK’s position. In the event, Hitler did the UK and the USSR the favor of declaring war on the US just as his move against Moscow bogged down.

    • 12 August 2015 at 3:15pm
      Bob Beck says: @ Timothy Rogers
      In Anthony Powell's "A Dance to the Music of Time" (I forget offhand which book, but probably "The Soldier's Art"), the semi-autobiographical narrator, Jenkins, experiences an overwhelming feeling that "everything was going to be all right" upon hearing that Germany has attacked the USSR. I wonder if such a feeling was common in Britain at the time; it wouldn't surprise me, the U.S. entry into the war still being six months or so off. (In Powell's book, that event passes without explicit comment).